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Train Your Gaze With Henri Cartier-Bresson

“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

There’s a short essay called “A Man Begging In The Métro” written by John Berger which talks about an encounter the author once had with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The two talk about the nature of photography and the legendary French photographer reveals some very interesting details about his process of taking pictures.

The “decisive moment” in photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson gives an explanation of what he meant by the “decisive moment in photography”, a term which he coined referring to the right moment to take a photograph.

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson “photography is just pressing down the shutter button at the right time”. Simple and easy. And it seems like an appropriate definition. After all who wants to challenge the famous photographer who many critics consider to be the eye of the 20th century?

Nevertheless there is of course a little bit more than that to photography than expressed in Henri Cartier-Bresson rather simple description. At least one could add that there are a few things one could do in order to force the decisive moment in photography to come.

What did Henri Cartier-Bresson mean when he talked about the decisive moment?

No doubt about it that many great photographs are the product of spontaneous and unplanned situations unfolding in front of the lens of a photographer. Then it’s often a matter of luck and quick hands to capture these special moments in the wink of an eye before they have passed – especially in documentary and street photography. On the other hand there are certain preparations you can make (or maybe even should make) that give you a certain control over a seemingly fleeting moment and increase the chances of capturing great moments thus getting the desired result.

One thing you can always do is check out locations beforehand. If you pass by a special place that you think might be a great place to take photograph for instance, you can make yourself familiar with it already thinking about possible shots. In other words you can cast and set the stage before the real action is actually going to happen. There are dozens of possibilities to manipulate the decisive moment, if you want.

You can check the lighting, for example. Does the sunlight get reflected, maybe by a building or a wall? How does the light change during different times of the day? Which angle would be appropriate? There are so many compositional elements that you can plan before taking the actual shot. Light, colors, shapes, forms, compositional lines and so on.

There’s an extraordinary photography film about Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Impassioned Eye”, which for me is one of the best photography movies ever made.

To give you a more precise idea of what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images below. Both photographs were taken in a place that already provided an interesting setting and a natural frame. In the first image its the geometry of stairs, asphalt and course of the street. In the second one the hole in the wall makes for a perfect frame to fit in the action – or subjects in this case. Having found such perfect settings all the photographer has to do is to wait and see.

Like a spider in the net. In the case if the Cartier-Bresson images eventually a man on a bicycle came by and a group of children filled the natural frame.

So after all not everything depends exclusively on being in the right place at the right time, or decisive moment as Henri Cartier-Bresson taught us. Besides the previous planning I just discussed, it’s certainly true that the photographer’s instinct also plays an important role.

You can actually train your gaze in order to be able to anticipate the decisive moment – on a subconscious level. Thus the more you shoot, the more likely it is that you develop these skills that over time help to educate your eye. All your experience eventually come into play when taking a photograph. Henri Cartier-Bresson put it that way in the interview with John Berger:

“Nothing gets ever lost. All that one has seen is always going to be present.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson stresses the importance of discipline and the continuous training of the eye. Every experience and every image taken helps to reinforce this long and never-ending process of developing an own and unique photographic language. For that you don’t even have to carry your camera around with you all the time.

A very effective way to train your eye is to constantly visualize how things around you would look like as a photograph. Kind of like looking through the viewfinder without pressing the shutter button of your camera. That’s a very fun and at the same time educational way of looking at the world

The life of this famous photographer was filled with extreme experiences: Henri Cartier-Bresson was a hunter in the jungle and a prisoner of war, among other things. In every situation there is something you can learn and that you’ll benefit from as a photographer.

Check out some more features and essays about famous photographers such as William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Humberto Rivas or Graciela Iturbide, for example.


Check out my photography podcast – conversations with inspiring photographers from around the globe sharing their secrets for creating amazing images. It’s mostly in German, but here are some episodes in English:

Valerie Jardin: “Street Photography – Creative Vision Behind The Lens”

Dmitry Stepanenko: “Heavy Color” Street Photography

Jason Koxvold: “Knives” – Left Behind In Rural America”

Dyanne Wilson: Chasing The Northern Lights In Yellowknife

Luc Kordas: Loneliness In New York

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